Yerevan (AFP) – Armenians on Tuesday marked the anniversary of the massacre of 1.5 million of their kin by Ottoman forces in 1915, in a show of unity a day after leader Serzh Sarkisian resigned following days of mass protests.
The commemorations are a hugely emotional event for the South Caucasus country and Armenians of all stripes flocked to a hilltop memorial in the capital Yerevan with flowers in their hands to honour the victims of the World War I-era killings.
This year’s events were held a day after Sarkisian, who the opposition accused of a blatant power grab, stunned the country by saying he was in the wrong and resigning just days after being elected prime minister.
The acting head of government, Karen Karapetyan, appealed for unity after the wrenching political turmoil, with talks set for Wednesday with protest leader Nikol Pashinyan to discuss the transfer of power.
Russia — which has a military base in Armenia — appealed for stability but said it would not interfere.
Many Armenians said it was important the country managed to avoid bloodletting ahead of the highly symbolic commemorations.
“Thank God Armenian blood was not shed on the eve of the Genocide Remembrance Day,” Seyran Halachyan, 58, told AFP at the foot of the hilltop memorial, the country’s most visited landmark.
Ashot Minasyan, 72, said he was grateful to Sarkisian for not crushing peaceful protests and “leaving without bloodshed”.
– ‘Difficult phase’ –
Karapetyan thanked all political forces for heeding his call for unity in the former Soviet republic.
“We are going through a difficult new phase in our history,” he said in a statement.
“Today we show the world that despite difficulties and unresolved domestic issues we are together and united. This is our duty to the genocide’s innocent victims.”
Pashinyan, who led the mass demonstrations, was expected to lead supporters to the memorial later Tuesday.
“Tomorrow we will go together to tell our martyrs that the people have won, that the genocide for our people is in the past,” Pashinyan said Monday.
Pashinyan said on Facebook that on Tuesday he would conduct “political consultations” to discuss a number of concrete steps so that people’s victory “could be legally guaranteed”.
He has said that parliament would have to elect a new prime minister within a week and that new parliamentary elections were also on the cards.
Armed with buckets and brushes, some demonstrators also went to the capital’s Republic Square to clean up the protest site.
– ‘Will there be new shocks?’ –
Many said they felt mixed emotions because the impoverished country’s future was uncertain.
“I’ve been thinking from the start of the day that everything is just beginning,” said Asya Bagdasaryan, 43.
“What awaits us in the future? Will there be new shocks?”
Political turmoil enveloped the impoverished country of 2.9 million people after Sarkisian was last week elected prime minister by lawmakers after serving a decade as president.
The opposition charged that the 63-year-old wanted to extend his grip on power under a new parliamentary system of government.
Tens of thousands of people subsequently took to the streets of Yerevan and other cities in largely peaceful protests.
Sarkisian initially refused to resign but quit on the 11th day of demonstrations after a number of serving and former servicemen joined the marches.
His resignation came as a surprise, with analysts saying just last week that the opposition did not have enough resources to force the veteran leader to quit.
The Kremlin called for order and stability in Armenia which hosts a Russian military base but reiterated that it would not interfere.
“Everything that is happening in Yerevan is an internal affair of our Armenian friends, partners and allies,” said President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, expressing hope that a new leader would suit “all forces representing the Armenian people”.
Last week Putin called Sarkisian to congratulate him on his election as prime minister despite the rallies.